In the fate of the Delta smelt, warnings of conservation gone wrong

Sharon Levy writes:

Peter Moyle, an eminent authority on the ecology and conservation of California’s fishes, stands on the narrow deck of a survey boat and gazes out over the sloughs of Suisun Marsh. The tall, tubular stems of tule reeds bend in the wind as a flock of pelicans soars past, their white wings edged in black. It’s an idyllic scene that hints at an earlier time, back before the Gold Rush, when undisturbed creeks and tidal marsh covered the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Delta smelt has high odds of becoming the first fish to go extinct in the wild while under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

In the delta, two of California’s greatest rivers meet and mingle with the ebb and flow of tides from San Francisco Bay, forming the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Moyle knows well how this place has changed. The delta’s once wild labyrinth of meandering rivulets and floating tule islands have been replaced by a network of levees that wall off agricultural fields, towns, and remnants of wildlife habitat from the tides. A legion of invasive species now course through the reshaped channels. The many tributaries that run down from the Sierras to feed the delta have been dammed and diverted to provide water for cities and farms — a maze of infrastructure and engineering that has pushed several species of native fish into steep decline.

The creature Moyle has studied the longest and knows most intimately is the Delta smelt, now on the brink of extinction.

Moyle was a young fishery ecologist, newly hired at the University of California, Davis, when he first encountered the finger-length, translucent fish in 1972. He chose to study the Delta smelt because it was abundant but little understood. During the 1980s, he documented a crash in the smelt population, and by 1993, the fish was listed as “threatened” under both the federal and California endangered species acts. As head of a team responsible for charting a course toward the smelt’s recovery, Moyle suggested a radical solution: Conservation in the delta, he said, should focus not just on the smelt, but on an array of native fish with different life histories and habitat needs, including steelhead and sturgeon. All of their populations were dwindling as humans reshaped the ecosystem, but only the smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon were officially listed as threatened.

Moyle’s idea didn’t take hold and government efforts instead followed the letter of the federal Endangered Species Act, focusing only on the smelt. Years of intense study and controversy followed, including a series of court cases over allocating water for smelt habitat. The species continued to dwindle. In 2009, California officials changed the smelt’s status in their listing from threatened to endangered, and by then, another run of Chinook salmon, a run of steelhead, and the region’s population of green sturgeon had all joined the smelt on the federal endangered species list.

In the spring of 2015, a survey of wild spawning smelt found only six fish. Today, an estimated 48,000 survive in the wild — a small remnant of pre-crash populations. About the same number live in culture facilities created to prevent the smelt’s extinction. To some Californians, that’s of little consequence, and they regard efforts to protect remaining smelt as an exemplar of absurd environmental overreach. Why should an obscure fish, rarely seen by anyone but researchers, impair the flow of precious delta water to the thirsty farms and cities of Southern California?

But many ecologists, Moyle among them, consider the smelt’s rapid disappearance the signature of both an ecosystem, and a conservation strategy, in crisis. [Continue reading…]

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Worldwide catastrophe as shorebirds face extinction

 

John W. Fitzpatrick and Nathan R. Senner write:

A worldwide catastrophe is underway among an extraordinary group of birds — the marathon migrants we know as shorebirds. Numbers of some species are falling so quickly that many biologists fear an imminent planet-wide wave of extinctions.

These declines represent the No. 1 conservation crisis facing birds in the world today. Climate change, coastal development, the destruction of wetlands and hunting are all culprits. And because these birds depend for their survival, as we do, on the shorelines of oceans, estuaries, rivers, lakes, lagoons and marshes, their declines point to a systemic crisis that demands our attention, for our own good.

No doubt you’ve seen some of these birds while on vacation at the beach, skittering back and forth along the cusp of waves as they peck with their long beaks for tiny sand flies or the eggs of horseshoe crabs. They can seem comic in their frenetic exertions, tiny Charlie Chaplins in bird suits.

But these birds are remarkable in ways that defy not only belief but scientific understanding: They are, by far, the planet’s most extraordinary global travelers. Worldwide, about 70 shorebird species travel from the top of the world to its very bottom and back each year. The smallest weigh barely an ounce. Each species has its own story, but in every case these annual migrations are among nature’s most epic dramas. [Continue reading…]

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EU agrees total ban on bee-harming pesticides

The Guardian reports:

The European Union will ban the world’s most widely used insecticides from all fields due to the serious danger they pose to bees.

The ban on neonicotinoids, approved by member nations on Friday, is expected to come into force by the end of 2018 and will mean they can only be used in closed greenhouses.

Bees and other insects are vital for global food production as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops. The plummeting numbers of pollinators in recent years has been blamed, in part, on the widespread use of pesticides. The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, such as oil seed rape, in 2013.

But in February, a major report from the European Union’s scientific risk assessors (Efsa) concluded that the high risk to both honeybees and wild bees resulted from any outdoor use, because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. This leads to the pesticides appearing in wildflowers or succeeding crops. A recent study of honey samples revealed global contamination by neonicotinoids.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for Health and Food Safety, welcomed Friday’s vote: “The commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from Efsa. Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

The ban on the three main neonicotinoids has widespread public support, with almost 5 million people signing a petition from campaign group Avaaz. “Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees,” said Antonia Staats at Avaaz. “Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.” [Continue reading…]

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The battle to ban plastic bags

File 20180411 554 neo4o6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A plastic bag floats in the ocean in this 2016 photo.
Creative Commons

By Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University and Tony Robert Walker, Dalhousie University

There are increasing concerns about the use of plastics in our day-to-day lives.

Single-use plastics of any kind, including grocery bags, cutlery, straws, polystyrene and coffee cups, are significant yet preventable sources of plastic land-based and marine pollution.

In Canada, bans on plastics have so far been left up to municipalities, and some are taking action. Both Montreal and Victoria recently decided to ban plastic bags in stores, with business owners subject to huge fines if caught providing these to customers.

Other municipalities and provinces, such as Halifax and Nova Scotia, are contemplating similar bans in the wake of China’s recent ban on the import of certain recyclable products.

Although regulations are cropping up in some places, increasing public awareness appears to be gaining widespread momentum globally and across Canada.

[Read more…]

Land degradation by human activities pushing Earth into sixth mass extinction and undermining well-being of 3.2 billion people

 

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.

The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, launched today.

Produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.

Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, Government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.

Serious Danger to Human Well-being

Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world, the report says.

“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction,” said Prof. Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Dr. Luca Montanarella (Italy). “Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being.”

“Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” said Dr. Montanarella. “We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54% lost since 1900.”

According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.

Underlying drivers of land degradation, says the report, are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.

By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity – and by 2050, the IPBES experts estimate this will have fallen to less than 10%.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet.

The report says increasing demand for food and biofuels will likely lead to continued increase in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialized livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertilizer use expected to double by 2050.

Avoidance of further agricultural expansion into native habitats can be achieved through yield increases on the existing farmlands, shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste.

Strong Links to Climate Change

“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage,” said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES.

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”

The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.

Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.

Projections to 2050

“In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands,” said Prof. Scholes. “By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability – particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.”

Dr. Montanarella added: “By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions. In the future, most degradation will occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – the areas with the most land still remaining that is suitable for agriculture.”

The report also underlines the challenges that land degradation poses, and the importance of restoration, for key international development objectives, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. “The greatest value of the assessment is the evidence that it provides to decision makers in Government, business, academia and even at the level of local communities,” said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. “With better information, backed by the consensus of the world’s leading experts, we can all make better choices for more effective action.”

Options for Land Restoration

The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.

In croplands, for instance, some of these include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems.

In rangelands with traditional grazing, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes, and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions have proven effective.

Successful responses in wetlands have included control over pollution sources, managing the wetlands as part of the landscape, and reflooding wetlands damaged by draining.

In urban areas, urban spatial planning, replanting with native species, the development of ‘green infrastructure’ such as parks and riverways, remediation of contaminated and sealed soils (e.g. under asphalt), wastewater treatment and river channel restoration are identified as key options for action.

Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:

  • Improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data;
  • Coordinating policy between different ministries to simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities;
  • Eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management; and
  • Integrating the agricultural, forestry, energy, water, infrastructure and service agendas.

Making the point that existing multilateral environmental agreements provide a good platform for action to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation and promote restoration, the authors observe, however, that greater commitment and more effective cooperation is needed at the national and local levels to achieve the goals of zero net land degradation, no loss of biodiversity and improved human well-being.

Knowledge Gaps

Among the areas identified by the report as opportunities for further research are:

  • The consequences of land degradation on freshwater and coastal ecosystems, physical and mental health and spiritual well-being, and infectious disease prevalence and transmission;
  • The potential for land degradation to exacerbate climate change, and land restoration to help both mitigation and adaptation;
  • The linkages between land degradation and restoration and social, economic and political processes in far-off places; and
  • Interactions among land degradation, poverty, climate change, and the risk of conflict and of involuntary migration.

Environmental and Economic Sense

The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved. On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.

“Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr. Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.”

Echoing this message, Sir Robert Watson, said: “Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act.”

 

‘Shocking’ decline in birds across Europe due to pesticide use, say scientists

The Independent reports:

Bird numbers across France have declined by a third in the past 15 years, according to new figures released by researchers.

Linked to changes in agricultural practices such as pesticide use, the dramatic collapse is comparable with trends observed in other parts of Europe, including the UK.

Nevertheless, the latest figures have shocked scientists who previously thought France’s bird population was relatively stable.

“We had some idea because when you are working in the countryside you find places where the birds are missing,” Professor Romain Julliard, a conservation biologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History, told The Independent.

“So we all had a feeling that something was going on, but seeing the figures was a shock.”

In some areas, the researchers reported certain species had vanished completely, and noted the overall decline appeared to be accelerating. [Continue reading…]

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The immobilization of life on Earth

One of the defining characteristics of life is movement, be that in the form of locomotion or simply growth.

What is inanimate is not alive and yet humans, through the use of technology, are constantly seeking ways to reduce the need to move our own limbs.

We have set ourselves on a trajectory that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will eliminate our need to possess a fully functioning body as we reduce ourselves to a corpse-like condition sustained by a multiplicity of devices.

As Amazon advances on its path to gobble up the retail market, its next step, sweeping away the last vestige of foraging (mindlessly pulling food off supermarket shelves and then transferring them from one wheeled vehicle to another) is the introduction of grocery deliveries in two hours.

(Amazon Go offers a stepping stone in the deconstruction of the physical marketplace where shoppers no longer need be troubled by the need for human interaction.)

Just as automation in manufacturing has driven the growth of unemployment rather than leisure time, dispensing with the need to go out grocery shopping is likely to make people more sedentary rather than more motivated to exercise.

The maximization of customer satisfaction will be that Amazon Prime Now customers can quietly rot away in the comfort of their own homes.

Noteworthy are the efforts Amazon’s competitors are making to impede its rapacious growth by countering with the acquisition of drug stores. A hidden rationale here may be that retail corporations hope to ensure their survival by servicing the growth market of diabetes — a disease that afflicts 25% of Americans.

We are turning into creatures who have forgotten what it means to be alive, as we succumb to a torpid state that prizes ease above anything involving discomfort.

Paradoxically, this addiction to ease is now at the root of many of the most prevalent forms of human disease.

In the context of this life-denying human condition, it’s hardly surprising that our loss of appreciation for the core attributes of life is having a devastating impact on the lives of other creatures.

As walls get built to obstruct human migration, we are also blocking the migratory pathways of animals across our planet through an evermore intricate web of barriers, pipelines, and highways. Likewise, in our relentless quest for resources, we plunder and destroy vast regions of wilderness.

What we often think of as a world defined by its networks of connectivity, is increasingly a world sliced up by a matrix of divisions.

Where in the wild, animals once moved across continents in behavior patterned by terrain, climate, and the availability of food, their lives are now subject to constraints defined by economics and human desires.

As the New York Times reports:

Snow comes early to the Teton mountain range, and when it does the white-bottomed pronghorn that live here get the urge to move.

Following an ancient rhythm, they migrate more than 200 miles to the south, where the elevation is lower, winter is milder and grass is easier to find. Come the spring green-up, they make the second half of the round trip, returning to the Grand Teton National Park.

After thousands of years, biologists are concerned about the future of this migration pattern. While there have been efforts to protect the journey, such as highway overpasses and antelope-friendly fences, some new barriers are looming. Most immediate is the prospect of 3,500 new gas wells planned on federal land at the southern end of the pronghorn’s migratory path. And then there’s the nearby Jonah Natural Gas Field, which is already intensively developed.

“The challenge is understanding how many holes you can punch in the landscape,” said Matthew Kauffman, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming, “before a migration is lost.”

Room to move is critical for a wide range of species, but it has long been difficult for researchers to capture where and when they travel.

But a new and growing field called “movement ecology” is casting light on the secretive movements of wildlife and how those habits are changing.

A global study of 57 species of mammals, published in the journal Science, has found that wildlife move far less in landscapes that have been altered by humans, a finding that could have implications for a range of issues, from how well natural systems function to finding ways to protect migratory species. [Continue reading…]

We’re killing our lakes and oceans

Eelco Rohling and Joseph Ortiz write:

On January 5, 2018, a paper published in the journal Science delivered a sobering message: The oxygenation of open oceans and coastal seas has been steadily declining during the past half century. The volume of ocean with no oxygen at all has quadrupled, and the volume where oxygen levels are falling dangerously low has increased even more.

We’re seeing the same thing happen in major lakes.

The main culprits are warming and — especially in coastal seas and lakes — eutrophication caused by enhanced nutrient loads in runoff. The findings reaffirm that we urgently need to address global warming, and that we are in need of an updated Clean Water Act. We only need to look to the Mediterranean Sea and, more recently, the North American Great Lakes region for dramatic illustrations of what lies in store if we don’t act now.

Around 8,000 years ago, the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea became severely oxygen-starved between 300 and 1,500 meters, and lost all oxygen, or became ‘anoxic,’ below that. It wasn’t warming that caused the oxygen decline then, as is happening in today’s oceans, but the amplification of the African monsoon, which drove intense flooding of the Nile River, full of nutrients from decomposing organic matter. The freshwater itself inhibited deep-water formation, while its nutrient-load led to wild-growth of algae, cyanobacteria, and animals grazing on them. Upon their death, decomposition sapped oxygen from the water, rapidly turning it oxygen-starved, anoxic, and in extreme cases rendered it ‘euxinic’ (containing hydrogen sulfide, infamous for its rotten-eggs smell).

The conditions wiped out virtually the entire ecosystem from a few hundred meters below the surface of the water to the seafloor. A devastating 4,000-year period of anoxic ‘dead zone’ conditions ensued, which all started within a century of the flooding. [Continue reading…]